More on the Spirit and Soul as Bases of the Coniunctio (8/6/11)

Have I become too hard on humans—my own human side, as well?

Sometimes—this morning, for instance, when I woke up in my typically somber and mildly fretful mood—I view my human side as a brow-beaten, neglected and abused dog. It is loyal to its daimon master, suffering all manner of privations on its behalf. But what if these austerities, this forced seclusion in a state of emotional-erotic ‘purdah,’ could be relaxed a bit—allowing this starved and shivering little mutt to grow into a mature and respectable man—to ‘come into his own’?

It stands to reason that there will be more sadness, regret, and frustration in my life than perhaps needs to be there, so long as this condition persists—this power arrangement where the daimonic taskmaster restricts the opportunities for ordinary human happiness for the anxious ‘host’ he now exploits and dominates. And it seems ridiculous to suppose that the ‘human, all-too-human’ sadness and pain experienced under this rather draconian ‘regime’ do not find their un-merry way into my philosophical and psychological reflections, strongly coloring the general worldview that is emerging therefrom.

It would also make sense that the frustration and sadness, the dour disappointment and deprivation, that my human side suffers under the current arrangement gets ‘translated’ into envy and resentment towards those—the majority?—who more freely enjoy what life (this life) has to offer. Of course, it would be difficult for me to acknowledge this envy and resentment because that would suggest that somehow I got things seriously wrong about how life should be lived. Then all of my criticisms of collective norms start to carry the ‘stink’ of a rearguard attempt to defend a stubborn ‘spiritual’ prejudice, a proud blindness, and an inability to relax and enjoy life with moderation.

But what would this move entail? If the restraints and repressive habits currently in place are relaxed, can my life as a whole be fairly expected to improve? In exchange for the ‘promise of greater sensual and social happiness,’ won’t I be running the risk of slackening this spiritual tension it has taken so much care and time to establish?

And what form would this happiness I’m currently deprived of be likely to take? Isn’t it the companionship of like-minded friends that I yearn for more than anything else? But this raises additional questions, does it not? If these ‘like-minded’ persons I’m interested in befriending are like-minded insofar as they, too, share many of the same exacting critical standards and ‘unpopular’ concerns that fuel and propel my thinking and writing, then don’t I run the risk of jumping from the frying pan into the fire—at least where my impatient distaste for slack feeling and slack thinking is concerned? Such ‘like-minded’ friends might serve only to reinforce and intensify my ‘ascetic’ and asocial leanings. Maybe, maybe not? Perhaps what I need to cultivate is simply greater compassion for my fellow humans.

A passage from Jung’s Mysterium Coniunctionis (par. 175) sheds relevant light upon my present question. Fittingly, it is found in a chapter dealing with the alchemical symbol of the dog:

The theriomorphic form of Sol as lion and dog and of Luna as a bitch shows that there is an aspect of both luminaries which justifies the need for a ‘symbolizatio’ in animal form. That is to say the two luminaries are, in a sense, animals or appetites, although, as we have seen, the ‘potentiae sensuales’ are ascribed only to Luna. There is, however, also a Sol niger, who, significantly enough, is contrasted with the daytime sun and clearly distinguished from it. This advantage is not shared by Luna, because she is obviously sometimes bright and sometimes dark. Psychologically, this means that consciousness by its very nature distinguishes itself from its shadow, whereas the unconscious is not only contaminated with its own negative side but is burdened with shadow cast off by the conscious mind. Although the solar animals, the lion and the eagle, are nobler than the bitch, they are nevertheless animals and beasts of prey at that, which means that even our sun-like consciousness has its dangerous animals. Or, if Sol is the spirit and Luna the body, the spirit too may be corrupted by pride or concupiscence, a fact which we are inclined to overlook in our one-sided admiration of the ‘spirit.’

As usual, Jung packs a cluster of potent insights into a compact passage. First, I would make these links: Sol = daimon = spirit; Luna = ‘human’ = ‘abused/neglected bitch’ = body. What’s missing here is soul, and yet I certainly associate soul as a perspective with a generally melancholy, somber mood. It is feminine (in the sense merely of being absorbent, passive, not dynamic like the daimon) and it has links with both the daimon (spirit) and the body, for which it ‘feels’ a measure of compassion.

I have become increasingly sensitive to this ‘concupiscence’ that Jung ascribes to the spirit or daimon. Occasionally I sense the ruthless, single-minded driven-ness of the daimon, with its uncaring, indifferent—nay, contemptuous—attitude towards the body and its ‘human’ needs and yearnings. The important psychological observation here is that the daimon or spirit is not the serene, neutral, blissed-out topos within the totality of the Self, as I have erroneously supposed it to be in the past. It can be like the sunlight intensely focused into a point by a magnifying lens or a raging fire that burns through everything upon which it is directed—evaporating the moisture of feeling and even of imagination. In other words, it very definitely has a destructive aspect or character where all (imaginative, personal, and feeling-related) forms are concerned, while being a reliable force of liberation at the same time. Whether it is experienced as ‘creative’ (liberational) or destructive depends, it would seem, on whether or not we are identified with these ‘forms’ which are shattered or incinerated by the all-penetrating sun-like fire of spirit—or to what extent we are.

It also occurred to me, as I was reading the passage from Jung, that it might not be an outlandish stretch to link the spirit vs. soul/body with Nietzsche’s ‘Masters vs. Slaves,’ respectively. There is actually quite a close alignment between the two symbolic polarities.

Under the diluted but culturally pervasive influence of Christianity’s absorption and assimilation of soul into the much more powerful theological concept of spirit, I have tended in the past to conflate the soul with my ‘daimon.’ The differentiation of these two standpoints or qualitatively distinct energies can help enormously in my ongoing efforts to establish ‘where’ I am (under the principal influence of which complex I happen to be at any moment) in the psyche. By more completely and distinctly differentiating these inner figures—all of which may be said to behave like more or less organized, coherent personalities, each with its own character, aims (telos), and traits—‘I’ am in a better position to become disentangled from a state of identification with any or all of them. They become further relativized—interdependent—parts of the composite that ‘I’ am, at any given moment.

Why do I find this a preferable situation to the former one—where spirit (or the ‘daimon’) and soul were largely conflated, regarded as one and the same? For one thing, I believe I might be in a better position to understand the dynamics of my psychic life with greater fidelity to the facts—observable facts that have largely been hidden until now. I strongly suspect, for example, that there is a relationship between soul and the daimon (now that they are understood as two distinctive centers of gravity, each with its own ‘will’) that was invisible to me before. What if the loneliness and alienation I often experience is the soul’s response to the spirit’s bold and solitary forays into uncharted territory? The spirit, itself, being of a cold and inhuman character, does not register these painful feelings of isolation and estrangement from all that is comfortingly familiar, but the soul feels this quite poignantly. Thus understood, the daimon’s penetrating and subtle explorations of the remote frontiers of psychic experience invariably elicit a more imaginative, feeling-toned response from the soul perspective—and this response by the soul is a crucial part of the mapping-project itself—and psychic cartography is a central component of my life task. I have too exclusively associated my ‘vocation’ with the daimon, but now I am beginning to see that the daimon, or spirit, is only half the picture. Like a drill or a spacecraft, it ventures into new territory, but the soul is responsible for working up a suitable portrait or rendering of the newly uncovered terrain or topos. The soul needs the probing, penetrating spirit to enter into (and gather raw data from) the new territory—since it must remain anchored in the depths—which it then decodes and clothes in appropriate imaginal dress. Because this process happens simultaneously when I am writing, it has been difficult to recognize, until now, just how different these two functional properties—spirit and soul, daimon and imagination—are. Perhaps the coniunctio is between ‘spirit’ and ‘soul’ (rather than between Self and Ego, or some other pair of opposites).


Excavating Ourselves (3/30/12)

Where the deeper and more existentially important matters in our lives are concerned, much more is beyond our conscious reach and control than we are inclined to believe—particularly in the atomized, personal ego-driven, consumerist culture we live in today. I would go further and say that, for most of us, those matters of which we do possess some real understanding and control are comparatively trivial and insignificant when set beside the habit-reinforced, structural factors that operate (very much like digestion and our immune systems) well below the threshold of our consciousness. These are the ‘determining’ and predisposing factors that mysteriously shape, steer, and color our conscious thoughts and feelings—about the world, about ourselves, and about others—before we think, before we feel, before we choose or decide. We learn that we are invisibly and inescapably bound in unwitting servitude to such factors as soon as we dig down to a certain depth. And because these factors are for the most part unconscious, they operate behind our backs like invisible gases that intoxicate, enrage, depress, sexually excite, inspire, and panic us. They may be likened to invisible puppeteers that move us about without our knowledge or consent.

Some of these puppet strings were already in place before we were born—others were fastened to us later (following our ‘formative’ experiences with Mommy, Daddy, Father Hamilton, S.J., Uncle Sam, Ma Bell and her corporate kin, etc.)—but we cannot untie ourselves from them unless and until we become conscious of them as being somehow other than us. As long as we are oblivious to these strings and the powers that move them and us around, we will only be able to throw up our hands and say, each time they act up, ‘Well, that’s just me! I wish I were different, but that’s who I am.’ So long as we believe ourselves to be consubstantial with these unseen determining factors, we will never really be free of their power and authority over us. It is easy to see this in cases of alcohol or drug addiction—but these are comparatively crude and destructive forms of servitude. The forms that we are concerned with here are subtle and—aside from the fact that they operate beyond our conscious control—just as frequently benign, harmless, and even salutary as they are malignant, pathological, and disturbing.

Obviously, the most important first step we can take to liberate ourselves from these automatic, fate-deciding psychological complexes is to make them conscious. This means differentiating them from what I will call our essential self. As long as these complexes and patterns remain unconscious, they will remain undifferentiated from—or merged with—our core sense of personal identity. After we make headway differentiating our complexes, they become increasingly objectified. We learn about them—how they operate. We learn to recognize when we are most vulnerable to their domination, etc. But in order to proceed successfully with this sort of inner work, the psyche itself has to be understood in a radically new way. For many of us it comes as a surprise to learn that the psyche is every bit as real, enormous, complex, and ‘objective’ as the outer world and the vast universe are. We come to learn that we are in the psyche—just as we are in the universe. This is a very different perspective than the common (unenlightened) one, which locates the psyche ‘in’ us. Of course, the simple reason this actual arrangement is so hard for many Western persons to see is because our (individual and collective) attention is almost always directed outwards, in keeping with the deeply-rooted, one-sided prejudices of our materialistic, activity-obsessed, literalistic, anti-metaphorical, and unreflective culture. These prejudices must, one by one, be seen through and deconstructed before we can extricate our minds from their blinding and deforming influence. This is no small feat, of course, and considerable intellectual energy, discipline, and leisure will be required in order to make significant headway with this excavation work. We are ex-cavating ourselves (with an oblique reference here to Plato’s allegory of the cave) from the limited horizons of the prevalent modern Western worldview. Unless and until we truly begin to see this worldview (into which we were inserted at birth, just as we were dropped into our particular household, complete with our actual parents, socioeconomic prospects, religious affiliation, ethnic group, language group, etc.) as a historically conditioned, largely constructed and collective-habit-cemented, functional monstrosity, we are almost guaranteed to mistake it for ‘the truth’ or for ‘reality’—plain and simple—when in fact it is probably more accurate to describe it as a filter or veil standing in the way of more honest (and therefore messy) experience.

The Most Serious Game (2/16/11)

Culture may be viewed as a game with elaborate rules. Language is not only a crucial component of human culture, but is also a rule-based system. Now, insofar as culture and language can be regarded as complex games, we cannot dismiss the important role they serve in providing us with a reliable arena for the regular exercise of our play instincts.

When many of us think of the play instinct we picture little tots or puppies, but I am inclined to see play as serious business, insofar as human well-being and psychological health are concerned. If we are thoroughly engaged with a thriving and balanced culture, our psychic and affective energies are granted freer play than would be possible if we were disengaged or alienated from that culture. And alternatively, if we are thoroughly engaged but the culture turns out to be severely dysfunctional—or lacking a living myth to infuse its members with an unshakable sense of meaning and direction—we’ve got a problem.

After watching the movie ‘Winter’s Bone’ (Jennifer Lawrence’s breakaway film from 2010) recently, some friends recommended two documentaries that also deal with Appalachian or ‘hillbilly’ life—‘American Hollow’ and ‘The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia.’ Both documentaries chronicle (for one year) the lives and fortunes of two extended families from ‘the hills.’ What I found particularly interesting about these two films was the way they captured the intense frustrations that some human beings experience in a cultural system that is utterly deficient in its ability to accommodate and to channel the naturally occurring drives, impulses, and longings of more spirited specimens. It was clear, from watching these very instructive little films, that unless the ‘game opportunities’ afforded by a culture are sufficiently engaging and rewarding to the more spirited and talented members of that culture, serious problems are pretty much guaranteed to arise. As in the sports arena or the competitive workplace in a thriving economy, an excellent cultural system provides its engaged ‘players’ with channels and outlets for the aggressive, creative, erotic, and social energies that cry out for discharge and expression. When they are denied expression or a lawful means of discharge, they don’t just vanish into thin air. They accumulated and explode or they express themselves in ‘inappropriate’ and often destructive behaviors, as was shown in these anthropologically insightful films.

But let us go back to our initial question concerning the problematic relationship—or is it, as Nietzsche suggests, a separation?—between nature (and presumably the human-animal instincts that bind us to nature), on the one hand, and culture (along with language and abstract concepts), on the other. One way of defining the complex, transformative process of taking a newborn human child and gradually civilizing him or her is to say that the natural instincts of the child are being awakened, reconfigured, and redirected in such a way as to shift his or her primary allegiance from merely animal satisfactions to ones that are rooted in, and sanctioned by, culture. Of course this involves ‘taming’ and ‘domestication’— especially those socially disruptive, aggressive, and erotic drives—but domestication is not annihilation and taming is not always laming. The ideal aim of the civilizing process—whether this is consciously acknowledged or not—is to preserve as much of the strength of the natural instincts as possible while conscripting them into the service of civilization. Christianity—the way Nietzsche and others have seen and understood it, at least—has failed to live up to this ideal, insofar as it has systematically sought to weaken, cripple, poison, and vilify these aggressive and erotic instincts. But, not to worry: Thank God most ‘Christians’ can be relied upon to be arrant hypocrites who profess one thing and do quite another. Thankfully, Western humanity has not perished from actually living in a genuinely Christian manner. The redirected instinctual drives are not eradicated, but subordinated to the interests of society as a whole. The complex mechanism (or glutinous web) linking the individual members in a shared system is culture, along with its child, language.

Such reflections caution me against drawing a thick, solid line between purely natural instincts (innate; given at birth) and ‘artificial,’ ‘invented’ language and culture (which are acquired from our already semi-acculturated/semi-barbarous parents, teachers, peers). Is it too much of a speculative leap to posit a natural bridge between the human organism—as it is given at birth—and culture as such? By saying ‘culture as such’ I mean, of course, culture in its essential features or ingredients—a language, an ethos or table of values, a social scheme or hierarchy, a sense of history or cultural memory, etc.—and not a specific instance, e.g., Javanese or Berber culture. If ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ really are like apples and oranges—as some philosophers, psychologists, and religious teachers would have us believe—then I suspect that fewer of us would so resignedly allow ourselves to be shackled into our chair in Plato’s ‘cave,’ his famous image of the insulating and containing bubble of a cultural scheme—any cultural scheme. The simple fact that most human beings sincerely, if somewhat naïvely, conflate their inherited cultural worldview with ‘reality,’ as such, strongly suggests that it is not a simple matter of nature and culture being fundamentally conflicted or antithetical systems. This is an enormous and complex philosophical question and it admits of many complicating factors, to be sure, so we must beware of trying to settle or to simplify the issue too quickly. Blake wrote:

Those who restrain desire do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained; and the restrainer or reason usurps its place and governs the unwilling. And being restrained it by degrees becomes passive till it is only shadow of desire. (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, pl. 5)

Blake’s suspicions and misgivings about bending to reason’s yoke of restraint must, I think, be understood within the revolutionary cultural climate in which he serves as a powerfully dissenting voice. He was aware of the fact that European culture’s aims and functions had long been under the unchallenged sway of an elite political, aristocratic, and ecclesiastic minority for the enhancement of their own power and wealth at the expense of the masses, who were poor and uneducated—just the way elites like them. Blake recognized that the old ‘game’ was being changed by revolutionaries. Those who were being welcomed into the new game were a new breed of entrepreneurial players, persons whose political and economic ambitions had been thwarted and suppressed by the old aristocratic order. This emergent bourgeoisie was also restricted in numbers and, despite all its lip service on behalf of ‘enlightenment,’ these acquisitive and industrious makers of the modern world were often even more restricted in the scope and depth of their humanity, so far as Blake could see.

The architects of the new game of modernity, with its capitalistic, anti-theological, technocratic, scientistic, and materialistic tendencies made up Blake’s unholy trinity: Bacon, Newton, and Locke. To be sure, there were other thinkers and artists besides Blake who were deeply suspicious of these founders of modernity (perhaps Machiavelli, Descartes, and Hobbes should be included among the ‘villains’). They, too, warned against dangers they saw coming as a consequence of the momentous scientific, socio-political, and industrial revolutions that were reshaping every aspect of culture. Goethe said that his poetical works were not nearly as important as his methodological challenges to Newton’s abstract, mathematical physics. The German poet was convinced that the new mathematical physics—because it led to a view of the cosmos that so vastly transcended the reach of our unaided senses and which ignored our human feelings—posed a dangerous threat to human psychological wholeness and integrity. As Goethe saw it, the new physics elevated instrumental reason and material processes to such a high status, the human soul and its vitalizing sources—the senses, the feelings, and the imagination—were being tacitly neglected, devalued, and eclipsed. I needn’t point out the fact that Goethe was quite prescient about this. We’ve sent men to the moon and we now have nuclear weapons. Our technological might is as enormous as our souls and imaginations are cramped, starved, impotent, and alone in a vast and uncaring universe. Worldviews bear the stamp of the methods and means that give birth to them. What gets left out of, or excluded from, the method gets left out of the ‘world’—or gets relegated to the realm of insignificance.

But lordy, I must sound like I am disenchanted and discontented with this modern, technologically spellbinding era in which I was fortunate enough to have been dropped like an apple. An era that upwards of 99 percent of my human ancestors would have sold their daughters and their grandmothers to have been part of. But my guess is that eventually they would have been disappointed and disenchanted, too. They would have made the forgivable mistake of assuming that they could have brought their innocent, life-affirming, richly endowed cultural inheritance with them—and that these tasty exotic fruits would grow in this thin, contaminated soil and that these fruits would continue to nourish and vitalize them. Not knowing any better—or any differently—how could these innocent ancestors know beforehand that the sacrifice of these exotic nourishing fruits is precisely what was demanded for the very different sort of life that we have now—a way of life that caters to the body and the individual ego while ignoring the soul and the spiritual needs of the community? A way of life that trains and encourages the development and exclusive use of calculating reason at the expense of imagination and speculative thinking.

I personally think that it is foolish and ungenerous to demonize Bacon, Descartes, Newton and other indisputable geniuses who provided most of the blueprints in accordance with which our age has been constructed. These bold and innovative thinkers rightly felt that they were great philanthropists and benefactors to humanity. Bacon, to his eternal credit, warned repeatedly against allowing the staggering power that would surely be unleashed by the new science to fall into the hands of private interests—which is precisely what has happened. Surprise, surprise. Like Bacon, the other founders of modernity wanted the new science and the emergent technologies to serve humanity as a whole. Did they grossly underestimate the greed and cunning of the species they were trying to assist and enlighten? Did they overestimate humans’ present capacity to work cooperatively for the common good? Perhaps. Or possibly they were sufficiently aware of man’s wayward and selfish tendencies to have foreseen that they were opening up Pandora’s box—but that it was simply a matter of time before the torch of scientific knowledge spread, given the direction that intellectual currents were moving in. The increase in power over nature and the freedom from servitude to the soil would certainly bring many tests and trials in their train, but how else was our species to grow up and mature, unless it faced and mastered these very trials?

One thing seems fairly clear to anyone who’s been watching: the game has to change, and soon, if we—as a species—are to barely turn the corner ahead and avoid a complete regression into barbarism—Hobbes’ ‘state of nature.’

Games are serious business—period! But they become extremely dangerous when they are played unconsciously. The line between invigorating play and insane dogmatism is a thin one. Only when we have developed a saving (and lubricating) sense of humor about the cultural process we are conscripted into as innocent children—only then are we able to liberate ourselves from our blinders and our enslavement to rules and traditions that will otherwise keep us stuck in an irresponsible condition childhood.

Radical Equanimity (11/9/11)

The world’s best kept secret: In the human realm, when you win, you lose. And when you fail, you succeed. The “human, all too human” won’t let go of you until you begin to let go of it—and this can only be accomplished from a standpoint that is not, itself, confined to the merely human: an essential paradox concerning spiritual liberation. As long as I believe I can attain freedom within the confines of exclusively human horizons, I will continue to trip over my own feet. What we commonly recognize as ordinary human aspirations, values, desires, and fears constitute the very shackles and hoods which bind and blind us. And yet, as long as we are identified with our ordinary human perspective, it is impossible to acquire any more than momentary, sporadic glimpses of the serenity, wisdom, and freedom that are inherent in the perspective that lies just beyond the horizons of the human, all-too-human. What I am suggesting is that we first must die to the demands and enticements of the human realm before we can be stably initiated into the level awaiting us beyond. Such renunciation cannot be compelled, of course. Moreover, it does not come about through a scornful or bitter rejection—for this is merely a negative bond, an inversion of the attachment of desire, but every bit as sticky, stubborn, and difficult to undo. Release from these confining horizons is only attained with the serene neutrality that sees through and beyond the warring pairs of opposites—chief of which, according to Buddhism, are desire and fear. These, in a real sense, constitute human experience and define its horizons.

So, if we are encouraged to loosen and to extricate our souls from all those positively binding attachments to persons, places, and things—if, that is, we are to achieve the neutrality that is the key to our liberation, we must also let go of any desire to take punitive revenge upon life (for disappointing our hopes, desires, and expectations) or anyone in that life. Both the positive and the negative inducements (or seductions) must be ‘seen through’ and ‘neutralized.’ This is true poise and equanimity—rarely encountered among our kind.

On Wholeness and its Enemies within the Present System (6/22/10—Asunciόn)

As human beings, we commence our life careers as relatively fuzzy and inchoate creatures—taking on greater definition and more fixed features as we grow older. Certain tendencies, ‘seeds,’ and talents become germinated, nourished, exercised and developed into conspicuous identity-establishing features of our personalities, while other, less prominent, ‘iffier’ seeds and possibilities receive little or no encouraging attention. Normally, when we are growing up, we are strongly nudged by our parents, teachers, and companions to ‘play to our strengths’—to focus upon the development and perfection of those talents and capacities wherein we shine. It only makes good sense to heed such advice and encouragements if we happen to be growing up in a culture or society that lavishly rewards (and has far greater use for) persons who become really good at doing one or maybe two things. And then, in addition to the ‘external’ inducements of monetary compensation and praise for the competent performance of our one or two developed functions or skills, there is the internal, private satisfaction many of us enjoy when we ‘do our thing’ well—whether it’s indoor plumbing or outdoor sports.

But perhaps in addition to these two types of human lives—the one type being conspicuously proficient at one or two functions, and the ‘undistinguished’ other who lacks the requisite talent, discipline, and drive—there is a third type which is neither undisciplined and untalented, on the one hand, nor content merely with the development of one or two skills or talents at the expense of roundedness, on the other. In the past, such a person might be called a ‘Renaissance man’ or even a ‘philosopher’ because of the comprehensiveness of his vision (e.g., Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare) or the scope of his skills (as with Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Goethe). Words often used to describe such ‘whole’ lives and visions include ‘versatile,’ ‘multifaceted,’ and ‘protean.’ Each of these widely recognized ‘geniuses’ made enormous or even incalculable contributions to this (western) culture they helped to shape and inform.

But must all persons who innately and consistently strive for wholeness be geniuses or cultural-historical ‘stars’? In other words, is the very quest for wholeness, roundedness, and a comprehensive life the prerogative of the extraordinary few, the exceptionally gifted and ‘blessed?’ Or could it be that this yearning quite naturally appears in many of us whose native gifts are not quite so stupendous in their reach and fertility (as Plato’s, Shakespeare’s, or Jung’s)? At any event, this yearning for wholeness appears to receive little serious encouragement or support from our present culture, our educators, and—shamefully—even from our parents and our closest friends, who perhaps share a very different notion of success, fulfillment, and of ‘mature adult responsibility.’ Are the currently prevailing notions of human fulfillment and success rather lopsidedly utilitarian or narrowly ‘practical’ in their character?

Or, mightn’t it be even more extreme than this—so that, instead of simply being carelessly and unwittingly negligent of the ‘call’ of wholeness, today’s cultural norms are actually hostile to it? Is it possible that we now live in a culture that forcibly inhibits the full development of its members with the same degree of alacrity it devotes to our partial or lopsided development? Why on earth might a culture deliberately aim at such a goal—the rearing of comparatively fragmented or woefully incomplete creatures, many of whom are nevertheless highly effective in the regular performance of a well rewarded, single function? Is such a system as I am describing here even deserving of the name ‘culture?’ And if we suppose that somewhere within the administrative and governing bodies of this hypothetical system there are highly placed men and women who knowingly and deliberately shape, steer, and implement this elaborate political-economic-educational scheme, then we must ask: what are their ultimate aims, and how did they ever acquire so much power over the minds and destinies of the general population?   Why aren’t there more critics, dissenters, artists, and angry prophets out there blowing the whistle on these social engineers who assist in a strange, systematic crusade to turn us and our children into human fragments and blinkered functionaries instead of helping us to become whole human beings?

Well, to begin with, there most certainly are such critics, dissenters, artists and angry prophets living and expressing themselves around and among us. Unfortunately, what such persons are saying tends either to be drowned out by the much louder sound of ‘business as usual’ humming along or what they are saying is simply not being taken to heart (or to the streets.) This is not the same as saying that they are not being taken seriously by readers and audiences, because many Americans will readily admit that they are very mistrustful of the ‘system’ I’ve described, along with its rulers and its official architects. So, if this nation is in fact equipped with a sizable population of mistrustful, dissenters who are outraged by the current system why are they not attacking the system head-on, withdrawing themselves and their children from its institutions of fragmentation, and rejecting its menu of generally pernicious and psychologically-unfulfilling life career paths? Could they be reluctant to stand up and make a lot of noise for the simple reason that withdrawal from the system and the forfeiture of one’s precious but limited social/economic opportunities within the system are generally believed to be greater hardships than those entailed in unresisting compliance and obedient participation? There is the sense that ‘we can’t buck the system,’ a system which depends for its continuing success upon the widespread enlistment and participation of the populace. And, of course, so long as that participation continues, the warnings and the predictions of the critics and the prophets will be heard but almost never heeded by the inwardly divided and confused participants in the spiritually deforming and unwholesome system. And unless and until a critical mass of the ‘enlightened’ members of the general population actually dismantles the current system and replaces it with something intrinsically superior, the system, its rulers, and its architects will almost certainly remain in place.

We can turn this model around and look at this phenomenon from the ‘inside-out.’ A psychologically imbalanced or barbarous condition exists where one aspect of the whole is exaggerated to such a degree that the other parts of the psyche are eclipsed. If we add too much salt to a recipe, we ruin it—unless we are somehow able to find a way to counteract the excessive saltiness. Too much emotionality hampers rational action and free choice, but an excess of rational deliberation often leads to sterility and a weak connection with the animating/vitalizing passions. A society informed by our collective system, such as we’ve been discussing, is made up of the sum of the individuals participating in or contained by that system. What this means, in simple terms, is that the present system—if indeed it is in a perilously imbalanced condition—will not be restored to a state of balance or equilibrium unless and until a decisive number of individuals have succeeded in balancing themselves. Today’s fragmenting and wholeness-inhibiting system reflects the aggregate of fragmented and lopsided psyches of its members—from the top down. Viewed in this way, the source of the fragmentation and imbalance is seen to reside in the collective psyche of America, while the formal, systemic symptoms constitute the visible exoskeleton—those institutional directives, normative values, educational practices, and so forth which, from a more extraverted perspective, appear to be the source.

While the truth of this observation should be immediately apparent to anyone who recognizes the reality and the primacy of the psyche in all human experience, for those who do not, my observation will appear simply to have inverted the problem—and that I have gotten it all backwards. But such persons, I would argue, are operating from a standpoint that is still excessively mimetic in its orientation and response to culture and its institutions. They are like actors who—at best—have thoroughly memorized and internalized their lines. The culture is the play, and the play is a script, and ‘if it’s not in the script’ these actors cannot make intelligible sense of a ‘foreign’ thing or idea—let alone a completely different kind of play.

Here I am alluding to the authentically creative (as opposed to merely mimetic or imitative) play whereby the psyche itself spontaneously generates living forms and symbols. One commonly-occurring instance of such spontaneously generated images is the nightly dream which—when recalled the next morning—leaves us in a powerfully changed mood or in an imaginatively excited state that lasts through the day, perhaps. Another instance is the reverie we become absorbed in at the office when our attention drifts from the tedious paperwork we’re plodding through. Or it’s the irrational and deeply disturbing anxiety attacks that keep recurring and leaving us with the mounting suspicion that something big needs to be changed about our lives—and soon—or something’s gonna blow.

Where are these other parts of the totality from which we have become estranged in our chronic state of collective disequilibrium (or ‘mass derangement’)? They are not far away in some remote antipodes! They are right here in and around us, surrounding and suffusing us, just like Cuba is ninety miles away from Florida—and great literary and philosophical geniuses live private lives in small towns in Iowa and upstate New York—only ‘we’ don’t recognize them. We don’t enjoy diplomatic and cordial relations with our nearby neighbors and our potential enlargers and enhancers because we don’t yet know how to see them for who they really are.

Attachment, Nietzsche, Spirit, Soul, and Ego (8/30/12)

The deeper and more tenacious our attachments to material, sensual, emotional, and ideological forms/experiences, the harder it will be, naturally, to surrender to the ‘evolutionary’ impulse of spirit, for this powerful impulse points in the opposite direction from those attachments. The attachments act like durable cords binding us to all manner of phenomena and experiences in the ‘three worlds’ (physical, emotional, intellectual), and the spirit points away from these familiar harbors. As incarnate human beings, we are perhaps naturally disposed to equate these attachments (and the kind of experience that these attachments immerse us in) with life itself. Consequently, surrendering to the spirit is almost inevitably experienced as a virtual death of the personality—the ego-personality that we have long assumed to be our authentic and substantial self or true identity. Surrender to the spirit ultimately reveals this assumption to be only a half-truth. It is only half-true because there appears to be a deeper, subtler root of selfhood that is not synonymous with egoity, or the sense of separate ‘I-consciousness.’ From the standpoint of the immaterial, spiritual self, the ego (and even the body, which in some respects is correlative with ego-consciousness) functions almost as a kind of ‘mask’—a kind of projected identity or actor on the stage of temporal and phenomenal affairs. From the standpoint of the silent, meditating spirit that disinterestedly beholds this long-running stage play (that we are cast in as long as we function as ‘normal’ human beings), the phenomenal world is little more than a ‘coagulated dream.’ It is a kind of movie or epic story that can sometimes be thoroughly captivating and absorbing, while at others times it appears to be futile, a kind of sham or trick, an ‘eternal recurrence of the same,’ as Nietzsche put it.

It is perhaps also worth noting that Nietzsche seems to have consistently believed that the spiritual dimension was itself merely an illusion or a lie fabricated by priests to manage and ‘pastor’ the ignorant and the resentful, and that there was no real possibility of transcending the phenomenal realm—the ‘realm of appearances’—except via death, which is not so much transcendence as extermination. Perhaps as a consequence of a profound religious crisis suffered as a young man, Nietzsche seems to have consciously and irreversibly rejected the idea of the spirit as a transcendent—but nevertheless real and truly experienceable—dimension.[1] Perhaps, as he came to see all things and all processes ultimately in terms of power, he gradually closed himself off from the possibility of making fundamental sense of experience in any other terms. This is most unfortunate when it comes to making some kind of sense of spirit, since the surrender to the spirit-impulse within us is, at the same time, a kind of relinquishment of all power claims within the stage play of phenomenal, ordinary human experience, as mystics and saints from all traditions have attested. Since power remained paramount for Nietzsche—both as a force or energy to be sought for its own sake and as a kind of heuristic or explanatory principle for making ultimate sense of everything—his philosophical legacy is a rhetorically brilliant, but one-sided assault upon the spirit, which, again, he regarded as no more than a hollow ideal, a delusion clung to by powerless (and/or manipulative) people.[2] Nietzsche’s philosophy is perhaps the most eloquent presentation of materialistic metaphysical assumptions—a worldview that reached its cultural zenith in the 19th Century. Former materialists from both the ancient and modern eras (Democritus, Leucippus, Epicurus, Lucretius, Hobbes, Bacon, Gassendi, d’Holbach, Marx, etc.) strike us as crude and fumbling ‘innocents’ compared to Nietzsche, who deliberately and almost ‘religiously’ struggled to close off every possible ‘escape route’ into the ‘nothingness’ of the sham spirit world.

A close and thorough study of Nietzsche’s spellbinding writings reveals that his is, by far, the most seductive and persuasive voice ever to speak out on behalf of the involutionary arc—the thrust into concrete, flesh-and-blood existence and into the agon of contending, embattled human egos.[3] The Iliad is probably his favorite depiction of the ‘noble’ game as it should be played—but I am now fairly certain that Nietzsche missed the whole point that Homer was trying to get across in that timeless story. Perhaps the closest likeness to Nietzsche that we find in Homer is to be found in book eleven of the Odyssey, when Odysseus visits the underworld and hears the words of Achilles’ shade:

Let me hear no smooth talk of death from you, Odysseus, light of councils. Better, I say, to break the sod as farm hand for some poor country man, on iron rations, than to lord it over all the exhausted dead.

No wonder Nietzsche constructed strong and elaborate defenses against the spirit. It seems likely that he suffered an actual encounter with it and it had the dual effect of inflating him and scaring the hell out of him—as seems to have been the case with a number of ‘inspired’ men and women, including none other than Carl Jung, who appears to have been slightly better prepared to navigate through the paralyzing and mentally destabilizing paradoxes that appear to accompany numinous experiences. As it turns out, these torturous paradoxes, which are often experienced as menacing and threatening factors when the initial ‘infection’ occurs, eventually metamorphose into antibodies or a kind of psychic auto-immune system that can protect us against…against what? Against ‘personal ego’ obliteration. Against insanity. Against crippling nihilism. The paradoxes, under favorable internal conditions, become the very seeds out of which soul, the ‘third’ factor, is born. Soul, of course, is the middle principle between spirit and concrete, literal consciousness (ego-consciousness). Its distinctive features are the image, the symbol, and the metaphor. As a kind of psychic platform or perspective situated between spirit and ego (or literal consciousness), it is a kind of hybrid that partakes of both spirit and matter. Hence the paradoxicality that is fundamental to soul and to ‘anima consciousness.’ It is an ‘as-if’ mode of consciousness, experience, and manner of interpreting events—a mode well known, of course, to authentic poets to mystics, alchemists, visionaries, and (more recently) to genuine archetypal psychologists. I will employ an ‘as-if’ formulation in an effort to illustrate Nietzsche’s little-reported horror of the spirit—a horror that seems to have compelled him to take an uncharacteristically dogmatic, defensive stand for ego (will to power) and for (a subtle but inevitably reductive form of) materialism as an ultimate explanatory principle.

We might say that the impact of unadulterated spirit upon the typical human ego is analogous to the encounter between a particle of matter and a particle of anti-matter, or between a positively charged ion and a negatively charged one. In the encounter between matter and anti-matter, both are obliterated—at least, according to current theory. A kind of neutralization occurs—and in the case of the ego, this experience is horrifyingly deflationary, from one angle, while from another, it is liberating, releasing, and indescribably pleasant.[4]

What seems to make the crucial difference between a salutary and a lamentable outcome in this encounter is which ‘factor’ the experiencer is most allied with, consciously. If he is identified chiefly with the ego the experience will more likely be crushing and annihilating (because the spirit exposes the utter puniness and frightening fragility of the ego and all that it is attached to), and if he identifies wholly with the spirit, he will almost certainly suffer a dangerous inflation. Neither of these outcomes is desirable or psychologically healthy. If, on the other hand, there is some soul development, there is a good chance that the disturbing and ‘animating’ experience can be assimilated imaginatively or metaphorically, and not merely literally or pneumatically.

[1] An account by Ida Overbeck, the wife of Nietzsche’s close friend, Franz Overbeck, is helpful here. He was on the most intimate terms with both husband and wife and was often a guest in their home: “I had told Nietzsche earlier that the Christian religion could not give me solace and fulfillment and that I had in me the thought and feeling of carrying in everything the fate of all mankind. I dared to say it: the idea of God contained too little reality for me. Deeply moved, he answered: ‘You are saying this only to come to my aid; never give up this idea! You have it unconsciously; for as I know you and find you, including now, one great thought dominates your life. This great thought is the idea of God.’ He swallowed painfully. His features were completely contorted with emotion, until they then took on a stony calm. ‘I have given him up, I want to make something new, I will not and must not go back. I will perish from my passions, they will cast me back and forth; I am constantly falling apart, but I do not care.’ These are his own words from the fall of 1882!” (Conversations with Nietzsche; Sander Gilman, editor, p. 145)

[2] Nietzsche employs the word ‘spirit’ frequently, but with this term he seems to be referring to spiritedness, what the Greeks call ‘thumos.’

[3] However, it cannot, in all fairness, be said that he lived as he wrote, since—plagued with chronic health problems—he was forced to live the life of a virtual ascetic, moving solitarily from one boarding house to another in northern Italy and southern France, after retiring (for health reasons) at the age of 35 from his professorship at the University of Basel. Lonely, sickly, unmarried, and surviving on a modest pension, Nietzsche’s life was lived, especially throughout his last years before his mental collapse at the age of forty-five, in his head.

[4] Not to be flippant, but merely for the sake of illustration: the comparison with an organism seems apt here. The ‘neutralization’ corresponds with the climactic discharge of pent-up sexual force, which is accompanied by a burst of pleasure and a feeling of great contentment. Horror and/or delight may come a short time afterwards when it is learned that pregnancy resulted from the deed and henceforth one’s life will no longer be one’s own! Something roughly analogous occurs when we are impregnated by the (holy) spirit. But then, Nietzsche and Freud would have insisted that Joseph was the real father (in one famous case of questionable insemination).

Ignorance and Arrogance (8/13/14)

Haven’t we all noticed a strong correlation between ignorance and excessive (or unearned) confidence, presumptuousness and self-assurance, in a person’s supposed wisdom about life?  To be perfectly clear, I am not talking here about technical knowledge. As far as toaster ovens or Louisiana divorce laws are concerned, a moderately clever person can know pretty much all one needs to know about such subjects. I’m talking about general wisdom—say, about how geopolitics and the global economy work, or even murkier arenas, such as the mysteries of human nature and human spirituality. I suppose at my age I shouldn’t be, but I continue to be shocked and surprised by the presumptuousness and the arrogance of semi-educated, persons who have little experience outside their narrow cultural horizons. I hasten to add that any skill I have in recognizing the more carefully disguised forms of this practically ubiquitous presumptuousness I owe to years of unpleasant ‘recognitions’ and revelations of my own arrogant presumptuousness!

I live in Houston. With all the cars and the nearby oil refineries, the air quality here is about as bad as it gets in the U.S. The air pollution in Beijing and Jakarta may be worse, but the point I want to make is that when you grow up in a city that has serious air pollution you just take it for granted. It’s normal. You don’t notice it until you go away to the Andes in Patagonia or to a remote Pacific island where there are no cars or refineries—and then you come back home to polluted Houston. A similar situation applies to arrogance and ignorance. When you, yourself, are quite arrogant and ignorant, and the vast majority of your fellow citizens are ignorant and arrogant, too—arrogance and ignorance are normal. And unless we are confronted with particularly egregious and conspicuous examples of ignorance—say, with George W. Bush or Sarah Palin—or outrageous examples of arrogance—say, with Dick Cheney or Donald Trump—we simply go about our business as if nothing were amiss.

But be forewarned. There is comfort in numbers and, no matter how tough we happen to be, being alone—being left alone—tends to be uncomfortable. As long as we are all arrogant and ignorant together, things are quite tolerable, even if this collective arrogance and ignorance is actually hastening our collective demise. On the other hand, as soon as we begin to acknowledge our own arrogance and ignorance we place our happiness and well-being at grave risk, even though this is the honorable and correct thing to do.